Director: W.S. Van Dyke
Producer: Hunt Stromberg (Cosmopolitan, MGM)
Writers: Dashiell Hammett (novel), Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich (screenplay)
Photography: James Wong Howe
Music: William Axt
Cast: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O’Sullivan, Nat Pendleton, Minna Gombell, Edward Ellis, Porter Hall, Henry Wadsworth, William Henry, Harold Huber, Cesar Romero, Natalie Moorhead, Edward Brophy, Cyril Thornton
“Oh, Nickee. I love you, because you know such lovely people.”
We all know The Pink Panther, if not from Peter Sellers’ movies than from the cartoon. But this idea of zany whodunits and thinly-mustached detectives was itself inspired by The Thin Man, W.S. Van Dyke’s archetype that first combined the movies’ most entertaining genres — mystery and romantic comedy — to create a film that remains one of the most wildly entertaining of all the classics.
Based on the fifth and final novel by Dashiell Hammett, just four years after The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man would transcend the genre of hardboiled detectives by replacing the lone gumshoe with a romantic pair of sleuthing spouses, Nick and Nora Charles, two fun-loving soulmates swapping clues, jokes, glances, even punches to the jaw to knock the other out of the line of fire.
“Nothing quite like this relationship had been screened before,” John Douglas Earnes said in The MGM Story. “Critics and customers were totally captivated.”
The Thin Man was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, while grossing over $2 million and spawning a total of five sequels: After the Thin Man (1936), Another Thin Man (1939), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), The Thin Man Goes Home (1944) and Song of the Thin Man (1947), not to mention a spinoff radio program and a TV series in the late ’50s.
For such a successful series, and the new screwball genre it defined, one can only image the wowed initial reaction the first time such a movie entered the public consciousness. Everyone, highbrow and lowbrow alike, ate it right up like a cute dog lapping water from a dish.
Nick Charles (William Powell) and wife Nora (Myrna Loy) are an upper-class couple living in the luxury of Nora’s wealth. Nick is four years retired from the detective business when old friend Dorothy Wynant (Maureen O’Sullivan) comes to them asking for help in finding her father (Edward Ellis), a “thin” inventor who’s gone missing for three months. Involved in the mystery are her father’s mistress (Natalie Moorhead), his ex-wife (Minna Gombell) and her greedy ex-husband (Cesar Romero, you know, The Joker from TV’s Batman).
Though the plot details become convoluted, the motives of Nick and Nora are far less complicated and far more important. They seek only the pleasures in life, namely the pleasure of each other’s company. While as slender as the film’s title, Powell and Loy are no lightweights, taking swigs of booze throughout the movie without a stagger to show for it.
This has often been the film’s one complaint, its bubbly depiction of alcoholism, though in fairness, viewers should remember that Hammett wrote from a Prohibition sensibility. Between the drinks, the smokes and the other movie “habits,” the two are as lovable as movie characters get, almost as lovable as their wire-haired fox terrier, Asta, whose balloon-popping tricks rival the charm of Nick and Nora’s playful pillow fights.
It’s these moments that far outshine the mystery, as Hammett bases Nick and Nora on the relationship between he and playwright Lillian Hellman (The Little Foxes), a pairing that’s intentionally played up by husband-and-wife screenwriting team Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich (It’s a Wonderful Life, Father of the Bride).
Nick and Nora’s screwball banter carries the film, and it changed both actors’ careers. For Powell, who fittingly debuted in Sherlock Holmes (1922), The Thin Man meant the first of three Oscar nominations, followed by My Man Godfrey (1936) and Life With Father (1947), while Loy enjoyed such hits as The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), though sadly went unrecognized until an honorary career award in 1991.
Their on-screen client, O’Sullivan, was no less popular, having previously played Jane in Van Dyke’s Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), a role she would reprise in five Tarzan sequels. Even the dog went on to a successful career, co-starring with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn as the all-important George in Bringing Up Baby (1938).
The casting, particularly of Powell and Loy, plays such a key part in the success of The Thin Man that one has to sing the praises of Van Dyke. It was he who saw their potential, having just directed them in Manhattan Melodrama (1934), where he became more interested in the on/off-screen chemistry between Powell and Loy than in the lead performance of Clark Gable. And so they were cast, beginning a streak of 14 films together, a stroke of brilliance for one of the Golden Age’s most successful directors.
Van Dyke was no doubt a major player in the early days of Hollywood, serving as assistant director to the legendary D.W. Griffith on such masterpieces as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). In the decades to follow, Van Dyke would carve his own reputation as one of the period’s most expedient, economic and precise filmmakers, earning the nickname “One-Take Woody” on the way to becoming one of Louis B. Mayer’s favorite directors.
It was this reputation that actually allowed him to sell the project to MGM, as Van Dyke promised to shoot the picture in three weeks, then knocked it out in just 12 days. His name has not stood up with the Capras and Lubitschs of his era, but he deserves to be remembered for The Thin Man franchise alone, having directed four of the series’ six films (the final two came after he committed suicide to relieve his bout with cancer).
Along with San Francisco (1936), The Thin Man earned Van Dyke his first of two Oscar nominations, losing Best Director to Capra’s It Happened One Night. With the help of legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe (Sweet Smell of Success), Van Dyke presents a crisp, black-and-white world that smiles upon its pleasure-seeking sleuths. Watch the camera’s single-take pans back and forth between Powell and Loy, a curious observer as the two make scrunching faces at one another.
As such, Van Dyke’s camera helps tell the story, at times placing the camera at Nora’s hip to appear as if Asta is pulling the camera by a leash, other times leaving Asta out of frame yanking the leash and controlling those inside the frame. The most impressive staging, though, comes in the climatic solution scene, where Nick gathers all the suspects together at a dinner table. Here, Van Dyke succeeds in framing 13 different actors at the table, as well as several waiters moving in the background, in what amounts to an engaging set-up to spill the beans. Except for falling victim to his era’s overuse of transitional wipes and a dated telegraph map graphic, Van Dyke creates a timelessly enveloping work.
Yet for all its fun, The Thin Man remains every bit as important to movie history. Not only did it popularize the idea of the movie franchise, its first sequel, After the Thin Man, became the first sequel to be nominated for Best Picture. Culturally, the film ignited a craving for wire-haired terriers, a previously unpopular breed in America, and later provided the namesakes of Michael Cera and Kat Dennings in Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist.
Perhaps its most enduring legacy is its portrayal of married couples. Previously, movie marriage had only been used to portray domestic disputes or happy endings. (A) Thanks to The Thin Man, married couples were now allowed to start the film happily married and end the film happily married, enjoying eachother’s company in between. What’s more, the husband is even shown living off the wife’s dough! On multiple levels, The Thin Man was truly a transcendant film, reinventing marital depictions, production trends and genre conventions. I promise one watch and you’ll want to see the other five.
A: Turner Classic Movies, The Essentials (website), by Rob Nixon & Margarita Landazuri